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What’s Behind All the Delays in Newly Legal States?

January 23, 2017

Five of the eight states that voted to legalize cannabis for medical or adult use in the 2016 election are now facing months of new delays. Most of the slowdowns have been initiated by legislators and state officials, who claim it will take them more time to set up a regulatory system. But a number of legalization advocates have pushed back, claiming in a few cases that the delays are a thinly veiled attempt to sabotage, or at least slow-walk, the programs.

Jim Borghesani, Communications Director for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, expressed his dismay at the quick decision to delay Massachusetts’ legalization law without input from the public. “We are very disappointed that the Legislature has decided to alter Question 4 in an informal session with very little notice regarding proposed changes.”

Ben Pollara, who led Florida’s campaign United for Care in both the 2014 and 2016 elections, railed against the rules proposed by Florida’s Department of Health, which would not allow more distributing organizations. “If DOH’s rule is implemented as written, it will be in clear violation of Florida law,” Pollara explained. “Why DOH would choose to engage in a policymaking exercise which ignores both the law and the role of the legislature in implementing the law is a mystery.”

The Wait for Medical Cannabis in Florida Could Be a Long One

At issue, in part, is a question with no definitive answer: How long should it reasonably take for a state to get its regulatory system up and running?

Colorado and Washington state both passed legalization laws in November 2012. Colorado was the first to open the door to retail cannabis sales on January 1, 2014, about 14 months after passing Amendment 64. But Colorado already had a well-regulated medical cannabis system in place. Washington state, which did not, took 20 months between ballot passage and retail opening.

Those first adult-use legalization measures didn’t explicitly outline a time frame during which legalization would be implemented. Those states also had relatively friendly governors, who were willing to engage in a good-faith effort to implement the will of the voters. Other states, like Massachusetts and Arkansas, expected some sort of pushback from governors strongly against legalization. So many state included specific timelines in their ballot measures last fall.

The general election of 2016 was largely a victory for cannabis advocates, with eight states passing medical or retail cannabis laws, but, if officials don’t stick to the timeline, these states may fall the way of Alaska – a state that passed a legalization law in 2014 but took two years to open the doors of the first legal cannabis shop, and face delays due to lack of product (and ultimately, lack of preparation).

Here’s how the delays are shaking out in each of the eight new states.

Mass. Officials Go Against Voters, Delay Cannabis Shops from Opening


The Arkansas House voted to delay the launch of the state’s newly approved medical marijuana program from March 2017 until May, in order to finalize the rules. The House also voted to push the state’s deadline to begin accepting dispensary applications from June 1, 2017, to July 1. David Couch, who wrote Issue 6, the measure for medical marijuana, agreed that the delay was acceptable, and didn’t see the delay as an effort to sabotage the program.

Arkansas House OKs Delay to Medical Marijuana Program


California seems to be on track, no delays so far.


Amendment 2 took effect this month, but the program is already in hot water. Under proposed rules issued by the Department of Health, the currently established (and stringently maintained) monopoly on cannabis cultivation would be restricted to those already operating in the CBD-only market. On top of this, the proposed rules would only allow the Florida Board of Medicine to determine which patients qualify for medical marijuana, rather than leaving it up to the patient’s individual physician. Ben Pollara, campaign manager for United For Care, criticized the rules, stating that they are “in clear violation of Florida law.” The Florida Department of Health will be holding public hearings on the new rules in five cities between Feb. 6 and Feb. 9.


It’s been tough sledding in Maine ever since election day. A recount found that Question 1 was approved by a hair, but state lawmakers are already fighting to delay the implementation of a legal market. Senate President Mike Thibodeu (R-Winterport) and Rep. Louis Luchini (D-Ellsworth) introduced Legislative Document 88, which would add an additional three months to the already-established nine-month timeline for implementation. The one upside so far is that Governor Paul LePage, who has been vehemently opposed to cannabis legalization, did sign off on the bill, confirming that legalization is coming to Maine – it’s just a matter of when.

Maine Legalization Faces Yet Another Challenge as Lawmakers Seek to Delay Cannabis Law


Massachusetts advocates are in an uproar after a clandestine bill was passed through the House and Senate to delay the opening of retail cannabis stores by six months. Many state officials, including the governor, were actively opposed to Question 4. Many lawmakers pushed back against legalization even after the measure passed. The bill to delay implementation was approved by a nearly empty legislative session, and it took the only two senators on hand less than a minute to pass the substitute amendment. The timeline for Massachusetts was already well-padded, and with the newly passed delay, retail marijuana shops will not be able to legally open until July 2018 at the earliest, pushed back from January 2018.


Montana officially passed Initiative 182 to repeal restrictions on the state’s medical marijuana, but it’s taking longer than expected before the changes will be implemented. Due to a clerical error in the initiative text, the measure will not be going into effect until June 30, 2017, and legislators are taking advantage of the extra time to make revisions to the Montana Medical Marijuana Act. Some of the changes that regulators are looking at are product testing procedures, inspections, and revised licensing. In the meantime, medical marijuana patients and providers are anxious to see the program come back into action as soon as possible. Dispensary doors have been closed and thousands of patients have been without access to medicine since last August when the law upheld by Montana’s Supreme Court became effective.

Montana Lawmaker Targets Judge Who Issued Cannabis Ruling

North Dakota

A new bill from North Dakota lawmakers would suspend the implementation of the North Dakota Compassionate Care Act. Senate Bill 2154 would halt the issuing of applications for medical marijuana dispensaries, as well as the eventual issues of licenses. The suspension would last through July 31, 2017, or until the state Legislature passes a more thorough medical marijuana regulations bill this session, whichever happens first. Sen. Rich Wardner (R-Dickinson) is the primary sponsor of the bill and insists that the delay is necessary to ensure a solid foundation for the program, but many would-be patients are frustrated and petitioning the Human Services Committee to implement the program sooner rather than later.


No delays so far in Nevada.

Lisa Rough's Bio Image
Lisa Rough

Lisa is a former associate editor at Leafly, where she specialized in legislative cannabis policy and industry topics.

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